Wednesday, January 05, 2005

How Pothole Naturalism fails the road-test…

Critics of Intelligent Design sometimes misunderstand the claims its proponents make. Take, for example, the concept of Specified Complexity. It’s really a pretty basic concept which simply links specificity with complexity, hence, the term specified complexity (yeah, I know, this is heavy). Intelligent causation is inferred when sufficient specificity is found in combination with sufficient complexity. The morning paper you may receive has both specificity and complexity. The particular patterns of ink on the paper are complex. The patterns correspond to words (i.e., information), which provide the specificity. A paper in which several bottles of ink have spilled may exhibit a complex pattern, but there is no discernable specificity to the pattern. Therefore, while the phenomenon is complex it is not specifically complex and it cannot, in and of itself, point towards intelligent causation – regardless of whether the spilled ink was intelligently caused. Conversely, consider a paper in which the typesetter slept on the keyboard, thus unintentionally producing something akin to:
kkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkk kkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkk kkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkk kkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkk kkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkk kkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkk kkkkkkkkkkkkkkkk
While it exhibits some specificity (i.e., the letter “k”), it also shows precious little complexity. Therefore it too does not qualify as being specifically complex and, as such, cannot be directly attributed to intelligent causation. So, we are looking for phenomenon that exhibit both high complexity and high specificity. Such phenomenon, if they exist, should be considered reliable indicators for the existence of intelligent action. This point seems to be missed in Ed Brayton’s parody of the ID movement when he writes, regarding the causation of the recent tsunami,
Those scientists who have lost faith in the revealed orthodoxy recognize what the seismological naturalists will not tell you: that the processes are so incredibly complex that it is virtually impossible for them to take place purely by random chance. Such complexity can only come about through the action of an intelligent cause.
Again, the key point to understand here is that complexity or specificity alone are unreliable indicators of intelligent action; it is only when the two are linked, and in sufficient measure, that we get a good indication that intelligent action has occurred. SETI researchers understand this point as evidenced in the fictional account from Carl Sagan’s movie, Contact. A transmission received from outer space is attributed to intelligent, and extraterrestrial, origin because the transmission exhibited both specificity (i.e., it contained prime numbers) and complexity (i.e., it contained a sufficient quantity of sequential prime numbers). It is doubtful that Sagan would have written an account of SETI researchers jumping for joy had they received only the first three prime numbers and the reason is simple – such a “message” would not have been sufficiently complex to infer design. Another misunderstood ID claim (which Ed touches on) is that of how probability is used as evidence for intelligent action. The argument from ID essentially states that if functioning systems are found to be both highly fine tuned and highly unlikely to occur through random chance then it is logical to infer that such systems were purposely caused. DarkSyde wrote a critique of Hugh Ross recently and said, of Ross’ approach,
The primary criticism of this approach is that it is untestable. If atoms were not possible, if heavier elements were not cooked up inside of stars via stellar nucleosynthesis, and if life did not exist on Earth, then life critically dependent on all those events and materials would not be here to observe that life is capable of existing under all those aforementioned conditions; ourselves included. To falsify the proposal "The Universe/Earth was designed for life/chemicals/atoms because life/chemicals/atoms can exists in the universe and on Earth" we would have to, among other things, find life/atoms, etc., existing where it was physically impossible for them to exist. This is, needless to say, unlikely to be observed! And if it was observed it would probably be the best evidence for miracle or IDC I can think of making the proposition tautological in the context of Ross and Intelligent Design. This fine tuning approach where various properties of matter, energy, and environment, are measured and found to be consistent with objects existing within those boundaries has been called by one reviewer I know the equivalent of shooting wildly into the side of a barn and then drawing bulls eyes around the holes. Ed Brayton summed it up as [paraphrasing] "Wow! Look at these potholes on my street, they're perfectly designed for the water inside to fit! What are the odds?"
Once again, the problem is that Dark (and Ed) are isolating one function of a particular concept. It’s not that some event or system is improbable; it’s that some event or system is improbable and specified. Consider a typical critique of this concept which refers to poker hands. You are dealt a hand of cards. What is the probability that you would get exactly the hand you were dealt? Yet, despite its improbability, you were dealt that hand! Therefore, so the argument goes, highly improbable events occur quite regularly. Hence, all we can infer from any improbability factor is that we were incredibly lucky. Do you see where the functional specificity is missing? The ID position does not seek out mere improbability but is quite selective of just which improbability it chooses to analyze. For example, it’s not what’s the probability of being dealt any hand in poker?, but, what’s the probability of being dealt a royal flush? We’re looking for events that are improbable and specifically complex. Potholes in the road are useless in this endeavor; the existence of the road itself is not. Bull’s eyes drawn around arrows in the side of a barn are useless in this endeavor; an arrow through an apple on one’s head is not. That someone happens to win the lottery is useless in this endeavor; that someone wins the lottery repeatedly is not. A planetary system forming is useless in this endeavor; a planetary system forming that provides an environment suitable for advanced life is not. Lastly, considering the example of habitable environments, one must not fall for the argument that many critics of ID use when they say, in effect, “Wow! We’ve found life where life exists! How improbable was that?” The error here is related to the ones above in that the critics have misunderstood just what is being analyzed. Would any of these critics support a research program designed to search for advanced life on the surface of the Sun? I doubt it. I would surmise that they would not support such a research program precisely because they understand that there are certain environmental parameters for the existence of advanced life. While advanced life does survive on the surface of the Earth, it will not survive on the surface of the Sun. Somewhere between the environmental parameters of the Earth and the Sun advanced life ceases to survive. It is not, therefore, out of line to analyze various advanced life suitable environments with regards to how they formed, and how they are sustained, and to then make inferences based on the probability of such environments arising strictly by chance. That we wouldn’t be here to observe life, unless the universe was the way it was, is not the issue. We are here. We do observe. And what we observe continues to tell us that, left to the natural course of events, it is highly unlikely that advanced life could form strictly by chance. It is so unlikely that, when combined with the fine tuning characteristics we also observe, we logically infer that we are here because someone must have monkeyed with the system. It would seem that the potholes have been filled in. Further ref: Rare Earth The Privileged Planet The Elegant Universe Origins of Life Nature's Destiny


DarkSyde said...

The objections to SCI aren' that it's a futile ay to determine design possibility. The objections are over how one calculates the values of complexity and probability. Demsbki has offered no standardized way to do that. He will not tell us if he even has one, although given that he's not willing to respond to blind tests, it's fairly obviously that he does not have such a methodology. He will only provide 'results' to objects in which he already knows the design origin of, or wishes to show the design origin of as a known status. Occasionally he does tip his hand and we do see how he's calculating some of that, and in those cases it's absurd how he does it Rusty; It's not even close to the way evolution works.

Lastly, Welsely Elseberry and PvM have developed fitness-landscape algorythm's simulating Natural Selection, run them through that two station filter, and found that they pass, thus lending support to the conclusion that Natural selection can indeed mimic ID, the most likely possibility, or that it was itself designed.
Your best bet for a valid Theory of ID is TE.

DarkSyde said...

Now, Let's talk about Dr Hugh Ross for a second. DR Ross is magnitudes ahead of the DI in terms of integrity, even if I disagree with his views on Common descent. What sets Ross apart in my mind from every single other creationist, outside of Thevo's if you consider that a form of creationism, is that he 1) Really is a scientist of high caliber and has been since like age 15 (The guy was basically a child-genius from day one), 2) Conveys an infectious enthusiasm for science, and portrays it as something with which to gain insight into the mind of God. So he's about the best antievolution guy you could be into. Which probably explain why I can discuss this with you without getting frustrated as much as with the conventional IDCist. He does take a few shots at common descent, but that's not the gist of what Ross is all about. And at least he doesn't use the really shitty YEC type args, and he's fairly gentle about it. Most of his ID evidence has to do with physics/cosmology, so he's not terribly in conflict with common descent. I wish he would incorporate common descent, because Christians could really, really, use a role model like Ross doing so. But I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth.

What the DI is all about? Unlike Ross, it's an anti-common descent and anti-science marketing campaign aimed at grassroots theistic 'customers' such as your fellow Christians, especially those who don't know any better and don't put in the kind of time you do. You have to get that through your head. Your peers have about as much chance of getting objective info from the DI on evolution or science in general as they have of getting accurate and valid information on Cocoa-Cola from a Madison Ave advertising & marketing firm retained by PepsiCo.
That's why the DI uses emotional appeals, such as conflating evolution with metaphysical naturalism, it's a stealth way to say evo=no God. That's why, unlike Ross, they don't emphasize the wondrous world that science has to a great extent uncovered, they aren't interested in science, they don't want their customers to think of science as anything 'good', or as something compatible with their faith. They foster the opposite idea in fact. They're a PR firm, that's why they use tag lines, cliches, and bullet points, like "Darwinists can't explain the origin of life." That's why they use those patently distorted slogans, and won't stop doing so no matter how many times it is carefully explained to them that "Darwinists' don't exist if they mean evolutionary biologists, or that abio doesn't affect the usefulness of evolution/common descent, etc.
Think about the incessant use of the term Darwinism for a sec. It doesn't make much sense to call a scientific study something that the scientists doing it do not call themselves, especially such an archaic old fashioned term as that. It's like calling physicists Newtonists. It does however make a great deal of sense if one is using it as a backhanded insult attempting to keep evolutionary biology under the aegis of an ideology with the floater that it's a rival ideology to theism, and to capitalize on the latent resentment over the name 'Darwin' common among fundamentalist Christians. Yes, if the idea is to push emotional buttons with no regard for accuracy, then it makes complete sense.
It's a campaign of grassroots marketing. That's why they talk out of both sides of their mouths, underscoring the benign secular, scientific nature of their 'work' when speaking in secular settings. But when speaking to religious groups:

Intelligent design readily embraces the sacramental nature of physical reality. Indeed, intelligent design is just the Logos theology of John’s Gospel restated in the idiom of information theory." (Dembski-Touchstone Magazine, July/August 1999)"But there are deeper motivations. I think at a fundamental level, in terms of what drives me in this is that I think God's glory is being robbed by these naturalistic approaches to biological evolution, creation, the origin of the world, the origin of biological complexity and diversity. When you are attributing the wonders of nature to these mindless material mechanisms, God's glory is getting robbed...And so there is a cultural war here. Ultimately I want to see God get the credit for what he's done - and he's not getting it." (Demsbki-Address given at Fellowship Baptist Church, Waco, Texas, March 7, 2004)Note in that last one Demsbki is hinting, just hinting mind you, that he might reject the age of the earth, The Big Bang, geology, etc. That's the tap dance of someone who's trying to sell to the greatest number of folks, not someone who has a precisely defined scientifically informed viewpoint he's honestly sharing in fellowship.

Demsbki, Johnson, Wells,, etc are all quite unlike your primary guide, Hugh Ross, who to his credit uses those same natural processes as evidence for the Brilliance of a Creator. Now I can get into how Demsbki goes about his portion of the marketing duties with some detail and review the glaring shortcomings of the EF in the context of what it actually does and what he implies it can do and has done, although if you want to get really heavy into how he's contriving fitness algorithms to not pass the EF, and employing the NFL Theorems (wrongly) to do that I'll have to bring in some help. But none of that, none of it, is going to do you or I a damn bit of good if you think from the beginning that I'm some kind of Christian-hating, God-hating, stubborn dogmatist clinging to a busted atheistic philosophy intent on Deceiving and Tricking you about the Truth. If you cannot open your mind to the possibility that the ID God used, along with physics, cosmology, astronomy, geology, and the whole nine, might also extend to evolutionary processes, then you're never going to beak away from being a 'customer'.

LotharBot said...

Nice post.

Darksyde is right that one of the objections to Dembski's ID arguments (specified complexity) is that Dembski never provides a method by which to compute probabilities, and that when he tries to compute them, his methodology is questionable at best. I wouldn't say that's "the" objection -- there are plenty out there (most of which are as weak as the standard creationist responses to evolution, in that they rarely if ever have anything to do with the actual stated theory) -- but it is a good one, and it's something Dembski needs to respond to.

With respect to TE being the "best bet" for a valid theory of ID: one of the unfortunate things about ID is that it's been so strongly linked to origins (evolution / creation). There are a lot of good bets for valid ID theories -- we can have a valid theory for whether or not a particular signal is designed, for example. The "best bet" for a valid theory of ID is one that says nothing in particular about origins. The theory needs to be a lot more robust before it should even be applied to origins, and we need to have a much better grasp on biology before we can begin to test that for design. At that point, whatever the best-determined *mechanism* for origins is (be it evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense or something else), the best bet for origins-based ID is theistic "that mechanism".

DarkSyde also makes a good point about the Discovery Institute, as compared to Hugh Ross. DI, unfortunately, really is more of a PR firm than a good scientific study group. My wife was thinking of working for them for a while (she's done a lot of study of ID, and has some really solid criticisms and refinements of Dembski's work in particular), but eventually she decided from reading the sorts of things they published that they're not really as interested in rigorous, careful thought as they are in putting forth their favorite theory. DI isn't really strictly anti-evolution or anti-common-descent, as Darksyde claims, but it is essentially a marketing campaign for the general idea of theistic origins through basically any method. It's most often marketed to those who don't believe in common descent, but there are plenty of people who believe in ID and evolution.

Rusty said...

Thanks for your comments Dark, even if you did happen to stray off topic. As a reminder, please refrain from posting profanity in your comments. I realize that other evangelical blogs allow it, and I also realize that our pop culture now seems to think that such language is “standard,” but I am of the opinion that civil discourse, by those who claim some significant level of intelligence, excludes the use of the type of language heard from 7th grade adolescent boys. Simply put, I’ll blow away any further comment posts that contain profanity (and you wouldn’t want to waste all that typing, would you?).

I’m aware that there are sophisticated arguments against the claims of ID. I’m also aware that many evolutionists believe that their sophisticated arguments (e.g., fitness algorithms and NFL theorems) have shut down certain ID theories. It’s not my place to get into the details of such arguments – indeed, I have no place discussing the intricate merits of such a thing as an NFL theorem. However, I can address how some people either misunderstand or distort certain aspects of ID theories, and I can certainly address how the general gist of a sophisticated argument is flawed. As to the former, I’ve simply shown how whimsically attributing ID to an event simply because it is highly complex misunderstands the idea of specified complexity. As to the latter, I’ve addressed it in a couple of posts written regarding H. Allen Orr’s review of Dembski’s NFL book (found here and here).

An important point to understand in this discussion is that the idea of specified complexity holds merit, regardless of whether Dembski (or anyone else) has provided a means with which to calculate complexity and probability within a biological system. Look again at the newspaper example I gave: The idea that specified complexity indicates design is detached from whether we have valid means with which to calculate the levels of complexity and probability involved. At most all you've revealed is that more research needs to be done. That’s a far cry from concluding that specified complexity cannot indicate design or that specified complexity can be achieved through random chance combined with determinism. So even if Dembski has yet to produce the equations necessary to calculate the complexity within a biological system, the idea of specified complexity indicating design remains.

The thing you have to look out for, when confronting models which attempt to mimic random processes, is whether or not bias is introduced (whether intentional or unintentional). For instance, does work in molecular biology isolate certain processes to the point where extrapolations made from the results are unwarranted? (I realize that all naturalists are un-bias and that all IDists are bias, but humor me for a moment) Are the processes overly controlled by the researcher or are certain steps “helped” along (for whatever reason)? Have certain steps in an assumed process been verified in isolation of or within the process assumed? Have computer models that have been designed to mimic natural processes had information added or pre-installed to assist in the speedy retrieval of data? I recall a couple of examples from Pennock’s Tower of Babel in which he describes various computer programs. One of the programs was supposed to mimic the process of genetic variation in conjunction with natural selection. Researchers found that resulting “organisms” had mutated into more complex and efficient variations. Yet what was ignored was that the initial program had reproductive capabilities pre-programmed into it! Another program was “only” designed to produce random aerodynamic designs for an experimental project. The researchers marveled at the diversity of functional designs produced, yet what was ignored was that the program was set to function within a given set of parameters. Do you see what’s happening? The evolutionary process is assumed beforehand to have creative and design capabilities, so the "research" ultimately becomes just a matter of outlining how those capabilities operate. Never mind that we’ve isolated certain functions and / or circumvented certain integral processes altogether.

Additionally, one must understand that simply showing that a certain process (e.g., common descent, or specified complexity) is logically possible does not demonstrate that it is practically probable. Hence, I place little value on studies or algorithms that rely on the a priori assumption that the evolutionary process created life’s diversity or which take results from a micro level and unjustly extrapolate them to a macro level. Instead of spending their time on fitness algorithms, why don’t they address the very real necessary processes that must have happened to change a land-based wolf-like creature into a freshwater, and then a seawater-based whale in the space of 10 million years? Or why not address how large, different dinosaurs appeared on the scene within thousands of years after the Permian extinction? What about the Cambrian? Do the fitness algorithms address how such specified complexity arrived so quickly? My telephone number is specifically complex. Yet the question of attaining that specified complexity by chance goes beyond someone dialing it by way of a wrong number (to use another example from Pennock’s book). What needs to be understood is not that my specifically complex telephone number was attained by random chance, but that the person who dialed my number got the wrong one. That Pennock misses that point is indicative of how bias finds its way into the research arena.

As for your comments regarding the integrity, or lack thereof, of the fellows at DI, I have only this to say: Even if every staff member at DI is a villainous scoundrel, that tells me nothing with regards to whether or not the concept of ID is true. The folks at TPT could save a whole lotta keystrokes if they’d ever figure that out – their incessant ranting over tangential issues (e.g., Dembski and BBQ) gets old very quick.

I agree with you and Dark that DI deserves some criticism for the way it approaches the ID movement, although I wouldn’t necessarily share all of the same types of criticisms that Dark puts forth. My biggest beef with them is their “big tent” approach. I realize their desire to involve as many varied ID views as they can but, as a Christian, I see nothing wrong with positing that it is the God of the Bible that is the Designer.

One of my main criticisms of the evolutionists is in how they tend to paint the issue as being science vs. religion. Since I posit creation they place me in the “religion” arena. Therefore, by their line of reasoning, I am “anti-science” (since it’s a science vs. religion battle). Furthermore, science, by their definition, eliminates the need for belief in supernatural superstitions like religion. Of course not all evolutionists think this way, but just read the comments on TPT, especially regarding the post by the TE contributor, and you’ll see that sentiment expressed.

Your wife should check out Reasons to Believe and see what opportunities they may have for her talents.

DarkSyde said...

It is not science which has laid down the false dichotomy of religion Vs science, it is the advocates of Creationism who have done that repeatedly. That's why for example the DI harps so incessantly on 'naturalism'. Naturalism, materialism, etc, are all simply stealth words for atheism. But roughly half of evolutionary biologists polled are theists, so that's obviously an inaccurate dichotomy they're presenting. Why would they do so, over and over, despite sustained, repeated, corrections using testimony from living breathing evolutionary biologists who are theists? Because they don't care about accuracy Rusty, they don't care about truth, their sole motive is to push emotional buttons that move their customers into rejecting common descent.

Demsbki's "Specified Complexity" is not a metric of any sort. It simply means 'passed' the his EF. There is no such thing as more, or less, SCI. An object is either in, or out, of the set. It's a complexity and probability threshold.

Demsbki did not come up with the idea, it's been around in various forms pretty much forever. What he did was couch it in some intimidating notation, and attach his name as a Ph D Mathematicisn to it, slap an IDC sticker on it, and his fellow marketeers have taken that and presented it to the public claiming it's some kind of new revolutionary method that really works to detect Intelligent Design without ever bothering to say how one would apply it to various objects, or even subjecting it to blind tests. They're just flat out lying Rusty.

Again we see the same MO, tout an exaggeration, proclaim Demsbki some kind of mathematical genius, the Isaac Newton of Infomation Theory (Jebus that's really awful BTW, the man is probably ashamed of being called that), and play up the stereotypical brilliant scientists angle repressed by the unimaginative scientific caucus; that he's so dang far ahead of everyone else no one has even caught up yet. (Holy smokes Dr Smith! You and little Jimmy were right all along! There really are Martians!)

In actual fact his EF is nothing new, it's devoid of any original thought, his versions is uselessly vague, he will not flesh it out, he will not subject it to tests, it makes no useful contribution to detection of intelligence in cryptology or SETI-for they have and continue to produce their own much more precise and testable versions of the EF and have been doing so long, long, before Demsbki came on the scene claiming credit for the idea, and I might note they never make such silly grandiose statements as 'our detection will never produce a false positive.

I have a friend who made signal boxes for the NSA and they were developing electronic methods of detecting encryption buried in multichannel, frequency hopping transmissions that make the idea Demsbki claims as his own look like a flippin kids toy. And a great deal of the work they do is in analyzing the positive, and they find out that the vast majority of them are false positives.

But because this is all shoveled out with the seal of The Lord-eh on it (Hey, how many televangelicals scams have we seen that tactic successfully used on?), way too many theists buy it, or at the very least don't apply even a modicum of skepticism to it, and as a result, they're now repeat customers.

You see Rusty, there comes a point in the psyche of any duped sucker where they've invested so much emotionally in the scam. or where they've been so thoroughly duped, that they cannot admit even to themselves that they got conned. It's just too painful and too scary for them.
And that's exactly where the DI would like to lead their fellow Christians so that they will be hooked forever on the DI's 'product'

Rusty said...

The wind-driven rain came down so hard last week that mud was kicked up against the wall of my house. I realize that this is simply physics at work. Yet, had the streaks of mud formed the words El Nino 2005 I would not have attributed the phenomenon solely to physics.

A tree at the park down the street fell down in the wind-driven rain. While a car close by could have had its windows broken by such an event, who would attribute a missing sound system from the car as being caused by the storm?

A group of students in a teacher’s class score exactly the same results on a final exam – just like they’ve done on every test that year. Should the teacher just chalk it up to coincidence?

Although the wind is capable of carving rock formations into many intricately complex patterns, who would believe that the rock formations on Mt. Rushmore were caused by random chance?

Would one person winning the lottery a dozen times in a row cause the lottery commission consternation? Why?

Why was Tom Cruise’s fictional character, in the movie Rain Man, politely asked to leave the casino? What drove the casino authorities to question the validity of Cruise’s winnings?

Do you for a moment think that you could have convinced anyone, at noon EST, on 9/11/2001, that the four commercial airplane crashes that had occurred just hours earlier were unrelated?

Yet all of these events are possible through random chance! But that’s not the point. The point is that, given the specificity and the complexity involved, what are the chances that the event occurred randomly?

What the critics of ID need to do is open their minds to the fact that, regardless of whether or not complexity and probability values can be calculated for events such as I’ve just described, the common sense foundation of specified complexity remains. They may be able to snow other Ph.D.s, but the average man on the street isn’t so easily duped.

I’d be interested to know how your friend determined the signals his boxes were detecting were false positives? Just what probability boundary was used to make such a determination?

DarkSyde said...

I’d be interested to know how your friend determined the signals his boxes were detecting were false positives? Just what probability boundary was used to make such a determination?I once asked him that. He kinda laughed and told me 1 I don't have a security clearance, 2 I wouldn't have a chance of understanding it without years of professional experience, and 3 It's by now change so much (He's retired) that it wouldn't do any good anyway.

You seem fixated on 'randomness' I have no idea why or what you even mean by it. Selection is not random of course but variation is within limits. If you don't believe in God then evolution is partially random, if you do believe in God then it's not. Gotta live Blog Huygens partner. Maybe more later.

Paul said...

Rusty - I think we've discussed this before, but the events you highlight as being so unlikely that it is only reasonable to assume intelligent intervention differ from the ID/evolution discussion in one key respect: We know what the probability is. I know that, while it is theoretically possible for someone to win the lottery a dozen times in a row, it's so unlikely that there almost must be some foul play involved (though notice that winning a dozen consecutive times in a row isn't grounds for immediate imprisonment - it is still possible to do it!)

Compare that to life. From what we know so far, the probability of life arising on an Earth-like planet is 100%. The probability of life arising in space is 0%. The probability of life arising on a Mars-like planet is approaching 0%. Now none of these is in any way substantiated - we could find that Mars is the only Mars-like planet *without* life, or that Earth truly is unique. But without some more evidence, we know nothing about what the specified complexity of life is.

Without that context, there is a theoretical basis for specified complexity, but it has zero application to this problem. It's still fine for analysing lottery results of course (where the complexity is picking a set of numbers, and the specified is that they are the winning numbers)

Rusty said...

Hi Paul,

Yes I know we’ve discussed this before and, as before, we still disagree on how it is to be approached.

I realize that critics of specified complexity immediately jump on the aspects of probability calculation or testability, and these are important topics to be sure, but the point of my post is to unpack the idea to its fundamental level. The average person on the street understands that something is amiss if another person wins the lottery a dozen times in a row regardless of whether or not you can provide him with probability calculations. The point is that the average person understands that the occurrence of specific, highly improbable events indicates intelligent action. Interestingly enough, they understand this concept not because of higher education or technological advancement.

So the issue I’m raising isn’t whether or not we can calculate the information content and probability factor involved in, say, generating a bacterial flagellum. What I’m saying is that there is nothing, short of a priori bias, that prevents us from applying the same concept to biological systems.

BTW, I would disagree with your assessment of life arising on an Earth-like planet. I would say that we are 100% certain that life arose on Earth, but to say that the chance of life arising on Earth is 100% is begging the question. This is a mistake I see many critics of creation making – that of assuming that since we are here, the improbability factor becomes irrelevant. Having an advanced life-friendly environment only tells us that we have an environment in which advanced life could exist. Having the chemical components for life available only tells us that they are available. Some of the questions that need to be addressed are: With what we know of how planetary systems are formed, what are the chances one is formed that harbors a planet that is advanced life-friendly? What are the chances that life’s chemical components will be present in such an environment? What are the chances that said components will aggregate into even the most basic life forms? What are the chances that such life forms can modify and increase their information content to the point of filling the planet with the diverse life forms we see today?

Paul said...

"the average person understands that the occurrence of specific, highly improbable events indicates intelligent action. Interestingly enough, they understand this concept not because of higher education or technological advancement."

Even more interesting, they understand that regardless of whether it is actually true or not. There are endless things that are too much of a coincidence to be true (hence all the conspiracies theories we have) yet they are true.

Nonetheless, I don't think there is anything that prevents us from applying it. There are only two caveats to my saying that:

1. We have no data on which to base the reasoning. Whatever you might claim, we don't know how unlikely life on Earth is, except that right now it appears to be 100%.

2. Even if we got this data, we could still only calculate a likelihood, which is not a proof. For example, let's say we worked out that the chances of life arising by 'accident' are one in a trillion trillion trillion. So unlikely that it must have been designed, right? Well no. However small the chance is, it's still a chance, so we can't rule it out. And more importantly, if we discovered that there are a million trillion trillion trillion suitable planets, we'd expect a million inhabited planets.

As to your questions:

With what we know of how planetary systems are formed, what are the chances one is formed that harbors a planet that is advanced life-friendly?Incalculable - we don't know what "advanced life-friendly" is.

What are the chances that life’s chemical components will be present in such an environment?Incalculable - we don't know what chemicals are required for any life other than our own.

What are the chances that said components will aggregate into even the most basic life forms?Incalculable - if we don't know what those chemicals are, we can't work out the likelihood of their combining.

What are the chances that such life forms can modify and increase their information content to the point of filling the planet with the diverse life forms we see today?Incalculable - we simply don't have enough data to make even an order of magnitude guess. And that's not how evolution works anyway.

Rusty said...

Hi Paul,

I think we both agree that an improbability factor, in the proper context, could be evidence for design. Where we appear to differ is that you think that as long as there's a chance, however slight, then randomness remains a viable option.

I would argue that we can make some very educated assessments of what an advanced-life friendly environment is (providing we define advanced-life). Humans can't exist in a methane rich atmosphere, nor can they survive if the mean temperature is -200 F. There's two calculable factors right there...

With regards to life chemicals, let's not let the sci-fi mentality into the arena. Life as we know it is carbon based. There are essentially no other compounds that can structure themselves in the pathways that even simple life requires. Of course, if you still want to go the route of "other forms of life," then we could look into any of the variety of creatures we find on Star Trek. Let's face it, we know of carbon-based life and we know how complex even the simplest forms of it are. Those are calculable factors.

Paul said...

Yes, probability can point us towards fruitful areas of discussion. And relative probability can help us choose between options (if A has a 10% chance of happening, and B has a 1% chance, it makes sense to look at A first.) Where we differ, I think, is that probability can't really tell us that something is wrong (unless probability is 0), and in the absence of a competing, better probability, then even a fraction of a percent is enough for us to accept that as a possibility.

I don't agree that we can make 'some very educated assesments' for what advanced-life friendly environments are. We assume that life is carbon-based, but we only know one planet with any life at all, so that's hardly a sound basis for such a conclusion. 50 years ago we knew that life didn't exist at extremes of temperature at all, but now we know we were wrong. The fact is we can assume anything we want, and we could even turn out to be right, but it's not meaningful because we just don't know enough.

Now if we define advanced life as human, then yes we can make some assumptions and doing some calculating, though I'd argue that we still don't have enough information to make particularly meaningful calculation. For example, for all we know humans are the simplest advanced life form it's possible to have. Or they could be the most complex one. We just don't know.

Rusty said...


The issue for me has never been whether or not an event is "possible" but whether common sense indicates it was designed. That is my point when I posit that even primitive cultures would understand the concept of specified complexity pointing towards design.

My arguments that we can make educated asssessments with regards to advanced-life friendly environments certainly depends on how one defines advanced-life. My point is that, far from being an argument from ignorance, it is that the more we learn about these disciplines, the more we realize how finely tuned our existence is. These are conclusions based on the evidence and the knowledge gained from that evidence.

Paul said...

So you're saying that we can discount the whole of quantum mechanics, because it doesn't pass the 'common sense' test? That's quite a bold statement.